Another year, another Harry Potter product. The Harry Potter franchise has produced one new novel or film every year since J.K. Rowling published her first book in 1997, and Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban may be the most entertaining installment to date — at least as far as the movies are concerned.
This is the story in which the titular wizard becomes a teenager, and the actors’ increasing physical maturity is matched by a more complex thematic and artistic sensibility. Cuaron brings darker colours and bolder visuals to this film and, for once, it can be said that a Harry Potter movie has been made with something resembling a genuine cinematic vision.
And just in the nick of time, too. The Prisoner of Azkaban is perhaps the most emotionally complex of the Harry Potter stories to date; it is here that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) first encounters the Dementors, fearsome creatures which can suck the joy out of anyone who crosses their path, and it is here that he wrestles with his most murderous impulses.
And thanks to Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher and a former classmate of Harry’s parents, Harry also develops what may be his first meaningful friendship with a grown-up.
The Harry Potter novels have caused a great deal of concern for Christian parents and others who wonder if these books might get children interested in the occult, and of all the stories Rowling has written to date, The Prisoner of Azkaban may supply the strongest evidence for both sides of that debate.
Many Christians — and I am one of them — defend the books on the basis that the ‘magic’ within them serves the exact same purpose as the technology in science fiction. And nothing has convinced me of the link between these books and science fiction more than the fact that this story introduces time travel to the wizards’ bag of tricks. Somehow I think most children are smart enough to recognize that this is pure make-believe.
But this is also the story in which Harry starts attending a course in divination taught by the loopy Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson); exercises include gazing into crystal balls, reading palms and studying tea leaves. For the most part, Trelawney is held up to ridicule, but the mere existence of this class, combined with the fact that one of her prophecies is uttered under eerie circumstances and does come true, is admittedly problematic.
Spoilers prohibit me from saying more about this, but suffice to say that Christian responses to these scenes range from those who think they provide the clearest evidence of demonic activity in Rowling’s world, despite the fact that Rowling has never made demons a part of her sub-creation (see Richard Abanes’s Harry Potter and the Bible), to those who think they expose the folly of superstitious beliefs (see Connie Neal’s The Gospel According to Harry Potter).
Then there is John Granger, who argues in his newest book Looking for God in Harry Potter (Tyndale, 2004) that the Harry Potter books are actually deeply Christian; little may be known about Rowling’s own faith, but her books are so soaked in medieval concepts and images that they cannot help but express the Christian truths embedded within those symbols.
Prominent among those is the white stag which appears at a very significant moment in The Prisoner of Azkaban. The film, alas, never explains what this symbol represents, but Granger makes a very interesting argument to the effect that Rowling has found a poetic way to express through this the unity of God the Father and God the Son.
Since the children who were Harry’s age when the first book came out seven years ago are now ready for college, it behooves us to go beyond trite discussions of whether the books are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Granger’s book, informed by his own deep appreciation of classic literature and medieval lore, helpfully points the way to a deeper and more educated engagement with these stories.